Songs of Freedom

Wed, June 19, 2024 6:30 pm

PROGRAM

Grant Park Orchestra

Carlos Kalmar, conductor

Karen Slack, soprano

 

Ludwig van Beethoven

Overture to Fidelio


Margaret Bonds

The Montgomery Variations
Decision
Prayer Meeting
March
Dawn in Dixie
One Sunday in the South
Lament
Benediction


Jessie Montgomery

Five Freedom Songs
My Lord, What a Morning
I Want to Go Home
Lay dis Body Down
My Father, How Long?
The Day of Judgement

Karen Slack, soprano


Ludwig van Beethoven

Leonore Overture No. 3

LOCATION

Jay Pritzker Pavilion


RUN TIME

Approx. 80 minutes


SPONSORS

This concert is generously supported by American Accents Series Sponsor AbelsonTaylor Group.

Tonights concert is being broadcast and streamed live on 98.7WFMT and wfmt.com 

MEET THE ARTISTS

Karen Slack

Highlights of Slack’s 2023-2024 season include her solo debut with the New York Philharmonic, performing Beethoven’s Ah, Perfido! Op. 65 at David Geffen Hall, and her debut as a guest artist with Chamber Music Detroit, where she will give masterclasses and headline two programs: performing as a soloist in Of Thee I Sing, curated by Slack as a call for racial justice and an appeal to the healing power of love, and appearing alongside the Pacifica Quartet in works by Beethoven, Price, and James Lee III – whose featured work, A Double Standard, was commissioned for Slack and the Quartet by Carnegie Hall, Chamber Music Detroit, and Shriver Concert Series. In conjunction with Sparks and Wiry Cries, she performs in two productions of Songs in Flight, composer Shawn Okpebholo’s program exploring the stories of enslaved people who fled captivity, and she returns to the Dallas Symphony Orchestra for selections from the Great American Songbook. Slack returns to Bogotá, Colombia for a recital at the Festival Internacional de Música Sacra Bogotá and continues her deep collaboration with the Pacifica Quartet later this season with performances presented by Denver Friends of Chamber Music. 

In addition to her appearances on orchestral, chamber music, and recital stages this season, Slack embarks upon an ambitious new recording project in collaboration with ONEComposer and pianist Michelle Cann, to be released later this season on Azica Records. In August 2024, Slack unveils her new commissioning project African Queens, an evening-length vocal recital of new art songs celebrating the history and legacy of seven African queens, revered as rulers but not widely heralded in the western world. The program weaves this historical narrative through new works by acclaimed composers Jasmine Barnes, Damien Geter, Jessie Montgomery, Shawn Okpebholo, Dave Ragland, Carlos Simon, and Joel Thompson along with carefully selected traditional repertoire – further illuminated through passages of spoken text and thematic artwork.

Over recent seasons, Slack has amassed a body of work reflecting her dedication to premiering works by living composers, with particular focus on using her platform to elevate works by Black artists. During the 2022-2023 season, she premiered Songs in Flight at The Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Philadelphia Chamber Music Society and appeared in two separate world premieres by Hannibal Lokumbe, performing as a soloist with the Nashville Symphony (The Jonah People) and Oklahoma City Philharmonic (Trials, Tears, Transcendence: The Journey of Clara Luper). She premiered Jasmine Barnes’ Songs of Paul, a tribute to Paul Robeson, with Orpheus Chamber Orchestra and was featured soloist in the premiere of Damien Geter’s Justice Symphony with the Fresno Symphony and The Washington Chorus. Slack made her Houston Grand Opera debut in the world premiere of Joel Thompson and Andrea Davis Pinkney’s A Snowy Day and, in January 2022, was appointed Creative Partner with Brooklyn’s National Sawdust. 

When the pandemic limited live performances during the 2020-2021 season, Slack made premiere digital performances with Houston Grand Opera, Madison Opera, and Minnesota Opera. She also starred in a new production of the opera Driving While Black, presented by UrbanArias, and launched a digital talk show, #kikikonversations, drawing acclaim from Opera News and The New York Times. She co-created and performed in #saytheirnames – Women of the Movement, a film recital and production in partnership with Philadelphia’s Lyric Fest, performed in recital for Opera Philadelphia. Appearing alongside actor/narrator Liev Schreiber, she was featured in Orpheus Chamber Orchestra’s Speaking Truth to Power program, hosted by livestream platform Idagio.

Slack recently appeared in the role of Freia in Das Rheingold with the Dallas Opera and sang the title role in Aïda at Opera Carolina. She has performed on the stages of the Metropolitan Opera, Lyric Opera of Chicago, Washington National Opera, Scottish Opera, San Francisco Opera, Opera Theatre of St. Louis, Austin Opera, New Orleans Opera, Minnesota Opera, Vancouver Opera, Edmonton Opera, Sacramento Opera, Opera Philadelphia, Madison Opera, and Arizona Opera, among others. 

PROGRAM NOTES

Ludwig Van Beethoven (1770-1827)  

Overture to Fidelio, op.72c (1814)  

Scored for: two flutes, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, four French horns, two trumpets, two trombones, timpani, and strings

Performance time: 6 minutes 

First Grant Park Orchestra performance: July 19, 1980; David Zinman, conductor 

 

Leonore Overture no.3, op.72b (1805)  

Scored for: two flutes, two oboes, two clarinets, two bassoons, four French horns, two trumpets, three trombones, timpani, and strings

Performance time: 14 minutes 

First Grant Park Orchestra performance: July 24, 1935; Ebba Sundstrom, conductor 

 

Writing of his only opera, Fidelio, Ludwig van Beethoven said, It is the work that caused me the worst birth pangs, the one that brought me the most sorrow, and for that reason, it is the one most dear to me.” Beethoven makes no exaggeration, as it took the composer over a decade and multiple rewrites before achieving the operatic success he had long sought. This is why four different overtures to the opera exist. The final version, written for the 1814 production of the opera, is known as Overture toFidelio,” while the overture written for the 1806 revision of the original 1805 opera is known as Leonore Overture No. 3.” (Leonore was Beethoven’s preferred title of the opera and is used to distinguish between the 1805/6 versions and the more familiar 1814 version, Fidelio.) 

 The plot of Fidelio is said to be based on a true story from the French Revolution. The heroic tale provides a powerful endorsement of democracy and freedom—themes that are just as relevant today as they were during the Napoleonic Wars that were raging at the time of Beethoven’s composition. In the opera, a nobleman named Florestan is wrongfully imprisoned by his political rival, Don Pizarro, a prison governor. Florestan’s wife, Leonore, disguises herself as a young man named Fidelio and infiltrates the prison as an errand boy. She earns the trust of the jailer, Rocco, whom Pizarro has instructed to starve Florestan to death. When news reaches the prison that a government official named Don Fernando is coming to investigate allegations of cruelty, Pizarro decides to hasten Florestan’s demise and execute him himself. He orders Rocco and Fidelio” to dig a grave for Florestan. As Pizarro advances to strike Florestan dead, Leonore leaps between them with a pistol drawn, revealing her true identity. At that moment, Don Fernando arrives, and Rocco explains Pizarro’s murderous plot. Fernando imprisons Pizarro, and Leonore and Florestan rejoice in their reunion. 

 While Overture to Fidelio is more concise and appropriate in the context of an opera, LeonoreOverture No. 3 is the grandest and most imposing of the four overtures. Using Mozart’s opera overtures as a guide, Beethoven maps out the entirety of the opera’s drama so effectively that the overture holds up on its own as a concert piece. The emotional journey is one of darkness to light, from Florestan’s dank dungeon cell to Leonore’s heroic rescue and Don Fernando’s arrival, marked by off-stage trumpet calls.  

 

Margaret Allison Bonds (1913-1972)  

The Montgomery Variations (1964)  

Scored for: three flutes including piccolo and alto flute, three oboes including English Horn, three clarinets including bass clarinet, three bassoons including contrabassoon, four French horns, three trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion, harp, and strings

Performance time: 24 minutes 

First Grant Park Orchestra performance 

 

Margaret Bonds grew up in an affluent Black family in Chicago. Her mother opened their home to young Black artists, writers, and musicians in the community, including composer Florence Price, who would later become Margaret’s teacher. Growing up in this environment, Bonds demonstrated musical talent early on. While a student at Northwestern University, she was already making a name for herself. She won the Wanamaker Prize in 1932 for her song Sea Ghost” and was the first African American soloist with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra when she performed Price’s Piano Concerto at the World’s Fair in 1933. 

 Although Bonds is best known for her vocal music, especially her arrangements of traditional spirituals, her wide-ranging compositions included jazz arrangements, film music, popular songs, musicals, and orchestral pieces. Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes was a profound influence. Bonds faced intense racial prejudice while at Northwestern, where she was forbidden to use the library, dining hall, and other facilities. Discovering Hughes’ work during this time was a lifeline. They soon struck up a deep creative partnership and friendship, and he encouraged her to move to New York City. In addition to composing, Bonds was an active performer. She also served as music director for musical theater institutions, taught music to children living in underserved communities, and organized a chamber society to promote the work of Black composers.  

 Bonds composed The Montgomery Variations after visiting Montgomery, Alabama, and the surrounding area in 1963 while on tour with Eugene Brice and the Manhattan Melodaires. Dedicated to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., The Montgomery Variations were written in the wake of the horrific firebombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, which claimed the lives of four little girls and injured dozens more. Melodically based on the spiritual I Want Jesus to Walk with Me,” the variations ruminate on Montgomery’s history as a central hub of the Civil Rights Movement.  

 Sadly, Bonds never heard this work performed. However, she did provide her own program notes for each variation, reproduced below. 

I. Decision

Under the leadership of Martin Luther King, Jr., and SCLC [Southern Christian Leadership Conference], Negroes in Montgomery decided to boycott the bus company and to fight for their rights as citizens.

II. Prayer Meeting

True to custom, prayer meetings precede their action. Prayer meetings start quietly with humble petitions to God. During the course of the meeting, members seized with religious fervor shout and dance. Oblivious to their fellow worshippers, they exhibit their love of God and their Faith in Deliverance by gesticulation, clapping, and beating their feet. 

III. March 

The Spirit of the Nazarene marching with them, the Negroes of Montgomery walked to their work rather than be segregated on the buses. The entire world, symbolically with them, marches. 

IV. Dawn in Dixie

Dixie, the home of the Camellias known as pink perfection,” magnolias, jasmine, and Spanish moss, awakened to the fact that something new was happening in the South. 

V. One Sunday in the South

Children were in Sunday School learning about Jesus, the Prince of Peace. Southern die-hards” planted a bomb and several children were killed. 

VI. Lament

The world was shaken by the cruelty of the Sunday School bombing. Negroes, as usual, leaned on their Jesus to carry them through this crisis of grief and humiliation. 

VII. Benediction 

A benign God, Father and Mother to all people, pours forth Love to His children—the good and the bad alike. 

 

Jessie Montgomery (b. 1981)  

Five Freedom Songs 

Scored for: percussion, strings, and solo soprano

Performance time: 20 minutes 

First Grant Park Orchestra performance 

 

Jessie Montgomery will be familiar to many Chicago classical music fans. Currently the Mead Composer-in-Residence of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Montgomery has already established herself as a composer of international renown. She captures the 21st-century American experience in her music by mixing elements of vernacular music, improvisation, poetry, and social awareness into classical frameworks. 

Conceived in collaboration with soprano Julia Bullock in 2017–2018, Five Freedom Songs sources music from the historical anthology Slave Songs of the United States. Published shortly after the Civil War in 1867, this anthology of over 136 lyrics and melodies was made by educators and musicologists who traveled the South transcribing music from people in newly freed communities. They also included notes on performance practice and stories about the contexts in which these songs were performed. Some of them were sung during times of rebellion, others during worship, and others while working in the fields. Bullock noted a commonality underlying the diverse experiences these songs captured: After going through all of these songs, which, yes, acknowledge the violence and the trauma and the oppression that was very much a reality at that time, what was deeply inspiring for me to read and also to vocalize is an affirmation of life.” Montgomery and Bullock set aside the title Five Slave Songs in favor of Five Freedom Songs to capture this sense of aspiration.  

We wanted to create a song cycle that honors our shared African-American heritage and the tradition of the Negro spiritual, while also experimenting with non-traditional stylistic contexts,” Montgomery explains in her program note. Setting both well-known and more obscure spirituals from the anthology, Montgomery used the contexts behind each song to inform her musical treatment. For instance, the transcription of I Want to Go Home” as a seven-note melody free from any rhythmic indications led her to incorporate elements of Gregorian chant, which is also sung without a regular beat. In My Father, How Long?,” which emerged from a jail in Georgetown, South Carolina, at the outbreak of the Great Rebellion, the strings evoke the sound of a chain gang with percussive sounds. The funeral song Lay dis Body Down” calls upon the musicians to improvise their lines at their own pace but in relation to the surrounding textures, creating what Montgomery calls a swirling meditation.” “My Lord What a Morning” paints the image of the stars as they begin to fall”—an image that reoccurs in the final song of the set, The Day of Judgment.” This song, which originated around Louisiana, is set as an uneasy celebration over the refrain of a traditional West African drumming pattern,” Montgomery explains.

 

Program Notes by Katherine Buzard

CHORAL TEXT

Jessie Montgomery
Five Freedom Songs 

Each of the five songs in this cycle are sourced from the historical anthology Slave Songs of the United States (originally published by A. Simpson & Co., New York, 1867).

1. My Lord, What a Morning

My Lord, what a morning,
My Lord, what a morning,
Oh my Lord, what a morning, 
When the stars begin to fall, 
When the stars begin to fall. 

My Lord, what a morning,
My Lord, what a morning,
Oh my Lord, what a morning, 
When the stars begin to fall. 

You will hear the trumpets sound, 
To wake the nations underground, 
Looking to my God’s right hand, 
When the stars begin to fall. 

You will hear the people shout,
To wake the nations underground, 
Looking to my God’s right hand, 
When the stars begin to fall, 
When the stars begin to fall. 

My Lord, what a morning,
My Lord, what a morning,
Oh my Lord, what a morning, 
When the stars begin to fall, 
When the stars begin to fall.

2. I Want to Go Home

Dere’s no rain to wet you.
O yes, I want to go home,
Want to go home. 

Dere’s no sun to burn you.
O yes, I want to go home,
Want to go home. 

Dere’s no hard trials,
O yes, I want to go home,
Want to go home. 

Dere’s no whips a-crackin’ (no), 
O yes, I want to go home,
Want to go home. 

Dere’s no stormy weather,
O yes, I want to go home,
Want to go home. 

Dere’s no slavery in de kingdom, 
O yes, I want to go home,
Want to go home. 

All is gladness in de kingdom, 
O yes I want to go home, 
Want to go home.

3. Lay dis Body Down 

O graveyard, O graveyard,
I’m walkin’ troo the graveyard; 
Lay dis body down. 

I know moonlight, I know starlight, 
I’m walkin’ troo the starlight;
Lay dis body down. 

O my soul, O your soul,
We’re walkin’ troo the moonlight; 
Lay dis body down. 

O moonlight, O starlight,
I’m walkin’ troo the starlight; 
Lay dis body down. 

4. My Father, How Long?

My father, how long, 
My father, how long, 
My father, how long,
Will our people suffer here? 

My mother, how long, 
My mother, how long, 
My mother, how long,
Will our people suffer here? 

We will soon be free, 
We will soon be free, 
We will soon be free, 
We will not suffer here. 

We’ll walk de miry road, 
We’ll walk de golden streets, 
We’ll fight for liberty,
We will not suffer here. 

My brudders do sing, 
My sisters do sing, 
My people do sing,
We will not suffer here. 

’Cause it won’t be long, 
No it won’t be long,
No it won’t be long,
We will not suffer here. 

And it won’t be long, 
No it won’t be long, 
No it won’t be long, 
We will not suffer… 

5. The Day of Judgement

And de moon will turn to blood,
And de moon will turn to blood, 
And de moon will turn to blood 
In dat day — O-yoy, my soul!
And de moon will turn to blood in dat day. 

And you’ll see de stars a-fallin’, 
And you’ll see de stars a-fallin’, 
And you’ll see de stars a-fallin’ 
In dat day — O-yoy, my soul!
And you’ll see de stars a-fallin’ in dat day. 

And de world will be on fire, 
And de world will be on fire, 
And de world will be on fire 
In dat day — O-yoy, my soul!
And de world will be on fire in dat day. 

And you’ll hear de saints a-singin’, 
And you’ll hear de saints a-singin’, 
And you’ll hear de saints a-singin’ 
In dat day — O-yoy, my soul!
And you’ll hear de saints a-singin’ in dat day. 

(Repeated) 

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